JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA; AND NAIROBI, KENYA — On the heels of US air strikes Monday, US helicopter gunships strafed villages in Somalia Tuesday in an ongoing hunt for Al Qaeda operatives in the Horn of Africa.
US military officials say that Somalia's lawless state had become a safe haven for Al Qaeda activists, including possibly those responsible for the embassy bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998.
This week's attacks illustrate how much US military policy has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. As the US closes or downsizes massive cold war-era bases in Germany and South Korea, its presence is expanding in Uganda, Djibouti, Senegal, and São Tomé and Príncipe, African nations once seen as far beyond American interests. Today, African bases serve both as "jumping off" points for the war in Iraq and also as bulwarks against new threats in volatile regions of Africa.
At press time, the US military had not released the numbers nor the names of those killed in the attacks.
The sites attacked, close to the border with Kenya, were considered the last strongholds of Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which held sway over the country for the past six months until it was driven from power two weeks ago by an alliance between Somalia's transitional government and Ethiopia.
US helicopter gunships Tuesday carried out mopping-up operations, according to Somali officials, who added that "many" people had died in the attacks. Abdirahman Dinari, spokesman for Somalia's interim government said: "Most of them were Islamists." Unconfirmed reports from Somalia say civilians were among those killed, including a 4-year-old boy.
At press time, a key question is whether the US, in its first overt military operation in Somalia since the infamous "BlackHawk Down" intervention in 1992 and '93, has managed to hit the prime targets – Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, or Abu Taha al-Sudani.
The three men are believed to be behind the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, when more than 250 people were killed by two coordinated truck blasts.
Mr. Sudani is listed on Washington terror watch lists as Al Qaeda's point man in East Africa. Mr. Mohammed, from the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is suspected of orchestrating a 2002 suicide attack on an Israeli-owned Kenyan hotel.
The failed attempt to shoot down a tourist airliner as it took off from Mombasa airport on Kenya's coast in 2002, heading for Tel Aviv, also bears Mohammed's signature, intelligence sources have said.
"If the attacks have managed to kill or capture some of the top East Africa people in Al Qaeda then it vindicates the actions of the US and Ethiopia, and it shows the ICU has been deceiving everyone," says Matt Bryden, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
"But if they haven't, then it compounds what has in the past been a strategy of errors, and makes the US look like it's been sold a lemon by [Somalia's] transitional federal government."
The European Union issued a statement criticizing the attack. Ethiopia, which has begun unprecedented military coordination with US troops in recent months, has issued no statement about the US air attacks, but Ethiopian officials say that the US and Ethiopia have completely different agendas in Somalia.
"The Ethiopian mission was not to fight terrorism or Al Qaeda per se, it was to defend the territory of Ethiopia from the penetration of groups based in Somalia," says Mohammad Dirir, minister for tourism in the Ethiopian government. "We targeted the Islamic Courts, and the Americans have their agenda, the war on terrorism."
"In Somalia, because of the failed state, it became a safe haven for all sorts of terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda," says Mr. Dirir. "The lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, Mr. Ayman Zawahiri, made statements calling on Muslims to come fight in Somalia. There are some Arab countries who are not allowing terror activities on their own territory, but don't mind if it is exported to the Horn of Africa."
A European diplomat based in Nairobi, and who watches Somalia closely, says that "there is no doubt that people linked to Al Qaeda – not the high command – but sympathizers, were in Somalia, running training camps, recruiting fighters, arming those fighters."
Some of those fighters were recent arrivals from the wide Somali diaspora, it appears.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview with the French daily Le Monde published Monday that "Many international terrorists are dead in Somalia." He said passports from different countries have been collected. "The Kenyans are holding Eritrean and Canadian passport holders. We have injured people coming from Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, the United Kingdom."
There was no immediate verification of Mr. Meles's claims, but if they are true, he and Washington have the vindication they need to justify their attacks inside Somalia, the European diplomat says.
"That was the crux of it all, that Somalia under the [Union of Islamic] Courts would bring in bad guys from all over the world and train them up into a mercenary force fighting for Islam," he says.
The US airstrikes were likely launched from the former French base, Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti. Starting with about 1,800 troops in 2002, Djibouti has become the main regional base of the US military's counterterrorism task force. It also serves as a major desert warfare training center, an intelligence gathering center, and logistics base for US military forces. Its position right next to Somalia puts American forces within easy striking distance at short notice.
In recent months, the US military has conducted joint exercises with Kenya, the African country that has borne the brunt of terrorist attacks, since the 1998 embassy bombings. US forces have also reportedly been involved in training Ethiopian forces in counterterrorism techniques, ahead of their recent operations against the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.
The Pentagon is expected to announce soon the formation of a new Africa Command to focus on the troubled continent. Currently, responsibility for Africa is divided among three of the Pentagon's five regional "unified commands," each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the president.
Observers in Africa say the United States' single-minded focus on terrorism in Africa could backfire.
"The potential for transnational terror-related activity emerging from Somalia underscores both the international risk posed by state collapse and the international community's failed and inconsistent response to that collapse," says Kurt Shillinger, a terrorism expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "Establishing an African Command will only be effective if the primary policy thrust is support for internally driven governance-building processes."
Some observers are concerned that Islamic militants will melt away now, but will eventually form an insurgency as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq. The target will be not only Somalia, but Ethiopia.
"Ethiopia is central to the ideology of the Islamists," says Medhane Tadesse, an Ethiopian historian in Addis Ababa and expert on the Islamist movement Al Ittihad.
"One of the issues that divide moderate Muslims from extremists is the position they take on whether Ethiopia should be Islamicized. The prophet Muhammad exempted Ethiopia from jihad, and now the extremists say that Muhammad was wrong.
"By making Ethiopia the enemy, they know they will attract Islamic NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from Saudi Arabia and Iran," Mr. Tadesse says.